A powerful champion of a power line

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing state regulators to sign off on a high-voltage power line that a San Diego utility wants to build through the middle of California’s largest state park.

Proposed for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the project puts Schwarzenegger again at odds with environmentalists -- and some state officials -- who believe he is allowing California’s unrivaled collection of public preserves to be threatened.

The latest controversy follows the governor’s proposal to close 48 parks to save money, his backing of a six-lane toll road through San Onofre State Beach and his decision not to reappoint two foes of that project -- his brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and actor-director Clint Eastwood -- to the state parks commission.


Schwarzenegger, who says the power line is needed to transport clean energy, was concerned that Shriver and Eastwood might fight it too, said some officials and others familiar with the situation. The governor’s aides have said he removed the pair to give others a chance to serve.

The battle highlights the tension between California’s demand for infrastructure and its desire to protect natural resources.

East of San Diego in the Colorado Desert, Anza-Borrego is among the largest state parks in the United States and runs 70 miles south from Riverside County nearly to Mexico. It shelters a variety of wildlife and contains structures thought to be ancient human dwellings. Nearly a million people visit each year.

The 150-mile transmission line would run through the park for more than 20 miles, replacing wooden poles that carry lower-voltage lines with industrial-style towers up to 160 feet tall.

San Diego Gas & Electric and its parent corporation, Sempra Energy, promise that the proposed line, known as Sunrise Powerlink, would carry renewable power from the sun, wind and ground, mostly via yet-undeveloped plants in the bright, hot Imperial Valley.

State law requires utilities to supply 20% of their energy from renewable sources by 2010 -- a benchmark SDG&E; has said it cannot meet. The San Diego utility supplies 6% today.

“The project’s significance lies not only in its supplying additional power for a thriving and growing region but in doing so in a way that truly moves California into the future,” Schwarzenegger wrote to Dian Grueneich, the California public utility commissioner overseeing the project’s application, in a letter last December that came to light last month.

But the project would mar sweeping vistas of mountains, desert and scenic roads on 90,000 of Anza-Borrego’s 600,000 acres, spoil the solitude of campgrounds with loud buzzing and jeopardize species such as the endangered bighorn sheep, according to parks officials and a draft state and federal environmental review completed in January. That report found five preferable alternatives, including a route south of the park along Interstate 8 through the Cleveland National Forest.

“The idea that we’re going to sacrifice critical pieces of our environment to protect other pieces of our environment seems a little ironic,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California Parks Foundation. “That’s an irony I cannot accept. We have to find a way to do both.”

Schwarzenegger, in turn, called environmentalists and Democrats hypocrites for trying to block clean-energy projects.

“It’s a kind of schizophrenic behavior,” the Republican governor said recently at a Yale University conference on climate change. “They say that we want renewable energy, but we don’t want you to put it anywhere.”

He cited opposition to SDG&E;’s plan for “150 miles of transmission lines” -- the precise distance of the company’s proposed route through Anza-Borrego. The alternative southern route is 40 miles shorter.

The governor’s parks director, Ruth Coleman, objects to SDG&E;’s plans and told Grueneich in February that she prefers a route that avoids the park. But in deference to Schwarzenegger, she has remained otherwise silent on the matter in recent months -- as she eventually did on the toll road plan -- since issuing a blistering statement to the Public Utilities Commission in 2006.

Coleman, who declined an interview request, wrote then that the power line “would forever change the character of this pristine park and wilderness area.”

Some environmentalists question how much renewable energy the line would carry, because production is still scant in the Imperial Valley. Development is uncertain, they say, and the utility could use the line to import electricity from Sempra’s natural gas-fired plants in Mexico and Arizona.

The Public Utilities Commission is expected to reach a decision on whether the line should be built, and where, by late summer. “I believe very strongly that the public needs to have confidence this process has been fair,” said Grueneich, who has arranged public hearings in Borrego Springs, near the park, on May 12.

SDG&E; executives argue that building through Anza-Borrego would allow northward expansion connecting with Southern California Edison’s system in Riverside and Orange counties, increasing the reliability of the state’s electrical grid.

In addition, they say, the southern route would come too close to another power line the company has, creating a fire hazard; would bisect tribal territory; and would be more disruptive to communities than building in the park along the easement for the smaller line, which pre-dated by nine years the park’s establishment in 1933.

“If we took the southern corridor we would probably have four times as many miles of newly disturbed lands as we would through the northern corridor,” Michael Niggli, SDG&E;’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. “There are some considerations here that suggest this may be a very appropriate way to meet the goals of the state of California.”

Mark Jorgensen, the Anza-Borrego superintendent, said the park has been targeted before for power lines, water tunnels and fuel lines heading to San Diego from the east.

“We realize that life goes on outside of Anza-Borrego,” said Jorgensen, who has worked in the park for 32 years. But “we feel it is important to stand up for the park values and why people set this site apart 75 years ago.”

A spokeswoman for the governor, Lisa Page, said that Schwarzenegger “doesn’t want to go through the park if it can be avoided” and that he has not backed a specific route.

But in his December letter to the Public Utilities Commission, the governor said he wanted “to offer my support for the Sunrise Powerlink project before you for consideration.”

Schwarzenegger sent a copy of his letter to commission President Michael Peevey, a former energy company executive who has taken an interest in the project, though he is not assigned to oversee it.

On March 20, Peevey’s chief of staff flew by helicopter over the proposed routes with Niggli, the utility’s chief operating officer, who described the advantages of the Anza-Borrego route, according to a PUC filing.

“In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen this kind of hands-on intervention by the commissioners and the governor this early in a case,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a San Diego nonprofit advocacy group fighting the power line.

Sempra donated $25,000 to Schwarzenegger’s 2007 inaugural committee, state records show. In 2004, the company gave the governor a $50,000 political contribution, which he returned due to a pending lawsuit between Sempra and the state.

There is a dispute between SDG&E; and parks officials over whether the Parks and Recreation Commission would need to vote on a new power line. Shriver and Eastwood would have been in a position to exert influence over the project had it come before them for a vote, although they had not taken a position on it.